Chef Ying Aikens has had a colorful journey, moving from Beijing to North Texas more than 20 years ago, then leaving accounting and engineering three years ago to open her own catering company, Y2K Kitchens. She operated out of a friend's restaurant in Grapevine until October, when she opened her own place, Next Wood Fired Bistro & Vino Bar in Colleyville in an old Taco Bell.
The place has been a smash. The vibe is like a quirky tea room with homey decor and quaint paintings on the wall. That's part of its charm. Even on sleepy weeknights, it draws a roomful of diners grateful for the Mediterranean-fusion food and affordable prices. Pizzas and flatbreads are among the most popular items; you can see them being slid out of a wood-and-gas oven that overlooks the dining room. The menu also has appetizers, entrees, pastas, soups and salads; most of the food is made on-site.
The bistro makes its own pizza dough, and that was apparent from the baked crust, which had a good crisp edge and slightly airy center -- good enough to eat the whole thing. As for pizzas versus flatbreads: Pizzas are baked with the toppings on, while the flatbread toppings are added after the crust is baked.
Some toppings were ultra-gourmet, like the flatbread we tried with serrano ham, fig and goat cheese ($5). The crust was rectangular, with an asymmetrical border that telegraphed its handmade status. It was cut into eight squares, enough for two to share as an appetizer or for one as an entree. A thin film of goat cheese was spread across the top of the crust, then sprinkled with fig chunks and topped with paper-thin sheets of ham. The combination of tangy ham and sweet fig worked nicely, but the portion of fig was skimpy, with only a bite per slice.
Pork belly stuffed steam buns ($7.50) seemed a sophisticated offering, and when our server delivered them, they provoked a round of questions from our curious neighbors. The presentation was eye-catching, with three sliderlike buns lined up on a wooden plank. The bistro likes wooden planks; one of its signature dishes is cedar-plank salmon with root vegetables for a reasonable $16.50.
The buns came on house-made bread rounds, pliable and warm, enclosing a filling of soft, meaty pork belly in hoisin sauce, with scallions and thinly sliced cucumbers. The pork belly's softness felt comforting, offset by the slight pickling of the cucumbers. But the glossy hoisin sauce was too sweet. Streaks of red pepper sauce on the wooden plank provided sharp, fiery contrast.
Among the nine pasta dishes is a ravioli of the day whose fillings change with the seasons and at the whim of the kitchen. Orecchiette pasta ($12.50) -- small concave rounds -- is a regular feature and worth ordering for the inventiveness of its Romanesco sauce, a red sauce dominated by red peppers rather than the traditional tomatoes. Aikens' version was wonderfully lively and fresh. Thin slices of garlic cooked until just soft added flavor and a nubby texture that played off the al dente pasta.
Service was sweet and doting, if a little green; some of the staffers weren't up to speed on all of the dishes that Ying is offering. It's intriguing and unexpected that she would go for Italian food rather than her native Chinese. She makes the desserts, too, including creme brulee, panna cotta and an Italian cream cake so popular that it's the first to sell out. The wine list, compiled by her husband, Tom, is unexpected, too, with a small but exceptional collection that ranges from a South African pinotage to a meritage from Greece.